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Winter dreams of summer's carefully planned garden

This is the time for seed catalogs and dreams!

It's also a good time to plan the 1982 garden, especially if you live in the snow-clad North. So if you haven't yet done so, get out some paper (quarter-inch , half-inch, or one-inch graph paper, if you have it), a sharp pencil, and a ruler. Lay out your favorite flower and vegetable catalogs around you and start planning for the coming season's bounty.

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All good plans begin with dreams, those mental concepts of floral and vegetable perfection. The thing for you to do now is to get your ideas down on paper.

First, draw an outline of your garden to scale (one-quarter inch to a foot is a useful size) and divide it into four parts -- or a series of fours. This way it becomes easy to rotate crops each year and thus sustain a balanced soil fertility (different crops take different nutrients from the soil) and insect and other problems associated with growing the same crop in the same soil year after year are avoided.

In the old days, rotation was practiced as a labor-saving as well as a fertility-retaining practice.

The first year a bed would be deeply dug and heavy quantities of aged manure or compost mixed in. This was planted to onions and potatoes, both of which yield well in rich soil.

The second year the bed would be given over to legume crops -- peas and fava beans in the early spring, snap beans in summer -- both for the food they yielded as well as for the nitrogen which all legumes take from the air and fix in the soil as a readily assimilated fertilizer.

The third year would see the bed planted to leaf crops -- lettuce, cabbage, chard, spinach, etc. -- all of which need a good supply of nitrogen.

In the fourth and final year of the rotation, the bed is given over to root crops -- other than potatoes, of course.

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The following year (year 5), it's back to Square 1 again with deep digging, a plentiful supply of organic matter, and potatoes and onions as the principal crops.

This system saved labor in the intensive food gardens of the past because only one bed in four had to be dug deeply and heavily fertilized each year. For the rest, a light turning of the upper 6 to 12 inches of soil was necessary. It meant, too, that all the available organic fertilizing materials could be concentrated in one place and would, in effect, last for four years.

Today, concentrated fertilizers have reduced the importance of the soil-fertility aspect somewhat (although incorporating organic matter remains vital to soil structure), but the labor-saving aspects and other pluses of rotation still remain.

As with nearly everything in gardening, this rotation plan is not hard and fast. You can adapt it to your own best interests. Many folks follow a three-year rotation plan while some top gardeners whom I know have only one rule: Never plant the same thing in the same place in successive years. But, they'll come back to the same spot with just one year between.

The value of this four-year rotation plan has been proved over and over again even though it is flawed in one respect. The plan was devised originally by intensive market gardeners of northern Europe in the 19th century when tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant were not well known and highly suspect where they were.

So where do we put them in today's garden? Including them with the leaf crops isn't such a bad idea, but always remember that tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant, while members of the same family, do not get along well. Apparently they are too competitive and the tomatoes always win out at the expense of the others.

Conventional garden wisdom seems divided on the tomato issue, too. Never plant tomatoes in the same place twice, says one school; while another school says they do well in the same place year after year, growing fat on the decaying remains of their forebears.

For my part, I have grown tomatoes in the same spot for the past seven years. Each year I cut down the frost-blackened tops and compost them, while the root system is left to decay in the soil. Admittedly, they are given a good supply of compost, and, on occasion, some additional organic fertilizer when set out. They have always done well for us.

I move peppers and eggplant around the garden as best I can, frequently in rotation with zucchini or summer squash which generally stay out of the main garden beds. I also rotate vining crops (cucumbers and small winter squash which I train up fences) with climbing peas and pole beans.

Of course, in drawing up your garden plan there are other sound rules to follow. An obvious rule is never plant what you or your family won't eat; in other words, grow only what has dinner-plate appeal.

A second rule is to note which are the sunny and less-sunny parts of the garden. All vegetables need sun, but the fruiting species (those whose flowers produce the edibles) need more bright light than the leaf and root crops. If this means bending the rules of crop rotation somewhat, then so be it.

Be sure to note on your plan what follow-up crop will go in after the first harvest.

In my garden, for instance, the onion sets that go in the ground in March are all harvested by the end of July. That gives me time to get in a planting of bush beans or even zucchini. Remember, however, that zucchini planted this late tends to be less troubled by squash borer but has less time to produce a respectable crop before the leaf-nipping frost arrives.

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